South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is going all out to convince citizens that seafood is safe to consume.
On Sunday, the presidential office announced that it would serve Korean seafood at its cafeteria for the whole of this week, and continue to provide seafood at least twice a week afterward. The President himself had seafood at lunch on Monday, a presidential office spokesperson said.
Authorities are also meeting with corporate meal service providers to discuss serving more seafood to employees of companies. And there has also been talk of increasing seafood in meals for the military and schools. Sixty-four billion won ($48.4 million) has been budgeted for vouchers for consumers to spend on seafood and sea salt, as well as 115 billion won ($87 million) in financial aid to the seafood industry.
At the same time, Yoon’s political opponents have been leading protests and claiming that his government is bulldozing through public safety concerns and turning a blind eye to an alleged “crime to humanity” committed by Japan, which started releasing treated wastewater from the Fukushima nuclear power plant last week.
The topic of seafood safety has in recent months emerged to be a heated flashpoint in South Korean politics. While Yoon’s government tries to retain public confidence in the country’s seafood supply, opposition parties say that these attempts are clouded by a desire to deepen a budding friendship with Japan at the expense of public health and glossing over historical injustices.
Meanwhile, the country’s seafood industry—one of the biggest in the world—is swimming in uncertainty, with over 90% of South Korean consumers saying that they would reduce their seafood consumption because of safety concerns. This unease has continued to pervade the seafood market despite scientists saying that the wastewater poses a very low risk of radiotoxic effects.
“While the data hasn’t shown much yet, the Korean seafood industry is expected to suffer for a while because of the psychological anxiety,” Eunjung Lim, an associate professor of international studies at Kongju National University, tells TIME.
“This issue is not, and should not be, about Korea-Japan relations, but it has already become a political issue of how we view Japan and how we view cooperation with Japan,” says Lim.
When Japan first announced its plan to release treated wastewater from Fukushima’s nuclear plant in 2021, it was met with immense anger from the South Korean government, then led by President Moon Jae-in from the center-left Democratic Party. Authorities denounced the decision as “outright unacceptable” and threatened legal action at the time.
But under Yoon’s administration, which took power in 2022, South Korea did a 180 on the issue as it has sought to mend ties with Japan. When a joint survey conducted by Korean and Japanese newspapers in June showed that 84% of Korean respondents opposed the wastewater release, a Korean official said that the government should not make its decision based on an opinion poll. In July, the Yoon-led government endorsed the safety of Japan’s wastewater plans—in stark contrast to the positions taken by other countries in the region, including China, which has implemented further bans on Japanese seafood imports since last week.
Yoon’s stance has been criticized by opposition parties who point to the country’s bitter history with Japan, which the Democratic Party described as a “war criminal nation” that has “once again emerged as a global troublemaker by deciding to release the radioactive water into the ocean.”
“The opposition Democratic Party has a very different historical sense of national identity than the ruling People Power Party,” Lim explains.
Yoon, for his part, has placed clear emphasis on improving South Korea’s ties with Japan and the United States as a way to stave off the ever looming threat from North Korea.
Earlier this month, in an inaugural trilateral summit at Camp David, Yoon met with Kishida and U.S. President Joe Biden to strengthen the partnership between the three countries amid rising geopolitical tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Despite the domestic backlash he faces at home, “it would have been hard for [Yoon] to undermine the momentum of trilateral cooperation over something that is scientifically unproblematic,” says Lim. “The deep-rooted distrust of Japan in the minds of South Koreans and the trauma of Japan’s past actions have made this issue a bigger political issue than it needs to be.”
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